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John Ibbitson: French will slowly struggle in Canada’s Anglophone sea

The French fact is steadily eroding in Canada, thanks to immigration and the rise of English as the new global lingua franca.

Going forward, French will increasingly struggle to avoid being drowned in an Anglophone sea, which could fuel separatist demands for a sovereign French nation, while there is still time.

The 2011 census data on language, released by Statistics Canada Wednesday, shows Canada's other official language struggling to hold its own in a country where being bilingual increasingly means speaking English and something else, with that something else less and less likely to be French.

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The decrease over the last five years is small and incremental. Over that time, the proportion of Canadians who have French as their mother tongue has declined from 22.3 per cent of the population to 22.0 per cent.

But the broader trendline is inexorable. In 1981, French was the mother tongue of 25.7 per cent of the Canadian population. Today it is 21.7 per cent. Similarly, over that same period French as the language spoken most often at home has declined from 24.6 per cent of the population to 21 per cent.

Simply put, French is declining from the native language of one-in-four to one-in-five.

The reason, obviously, is immigration.

"Aside from a low fertility rate and incomplete transmission of French as a mother tongue to the children of French-speaking parents, international immigration has the strongest effect on the evolution of French in Canada," the Statistics Canada analysis of the data observes.

Over the past 30 years, the population of Canada has increased by just under 38 per cent. But the population of those who speak French as a mother tongue grew by only 16 per cent, less than half the rate of the overall increase.

Bilingualism is also acquiring a new definition. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of Canadians who speak both English and French at home has grown from 3.4 per cent of the population to 3.7 per cent.

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Those who speak French and another language other than English has grown from 0.7 per cent of the population to 1.3 per cent. These are miniscule figures.

But the percentage of those who speak English and another language other than French has grown from 8.3 per cent of the population to 11.5 per cent. That's an increase of almost a million people.

For advocates of a bilingual – that is English and French rather than English and Tagalog or French and Mandarin – Canada, the news is not entirely discouraging. In Alberta, for example, the percentage of those who speak French as a mother tongue has gone from 2.1 per cent five years ago to 2.2 per cent today, doubtless due to a general migration of population westward.

But what everyone seems to assume has been borne out by data. Immigrants are slowly but inexorably submerging French as an official language, preferring their native languages or English instead.

The data will fuel the argument of many within the sovereigntist movement in Quebec of the dangers of multiculturalism. For these pure laine, immigrants import both a language and culture that threatens to marginalize French, within Canada at large and within Quebec in particular.

Canadians outside Quebec will, in response, shrug. This country's major cities outside Quebec have long been linguistic melting pots, with English as the common currency.

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In that respect, the French in Quebec are no different from peoples around the world who struggle to preserve their language and culture in the face of the English fact – a global language in a global culture and a global economy.

The French in Quebec simply feel this more acutely. And the 2011 census confirms that they should.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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